"Why Not Here?": How TART Got Its Start Three Decades Ago
By Craig Manning | June 6, 2021
Traverse Area Recreation and Transportation Trails, Inc. did not officially form as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit until 1998, but the first pieces of the original TART were put on the ground in 1991. The story of how that trail came to be is a long and winding one, involving four competing trail organizations that ultimately came together as one. The Ticker worked with TART – itself in the midst of compiling a book about its decades-long saga – to put together this brief oral history of the trail’s early days.
John Robert Williams (TART Trails co-founder): The ‘original’ TART organization started out in 1987 as the ‘Citizens for Better Ways,’ through a grant proposal to Rotary Charities of Traverse City to connect downtown Traverse City with the Grand Traverse Resort. One of the four founders, Rick Antosh, was the CFO at the Resort.
Rick Antosh: I biked over to my friend Pete Doren’s house with my son Joey and thought back to our home in Chicago, where our neighborhood had a cinder path that ran alongside the railroad. It was an asset to the community. We started to wonder, ‘Why not here?’
Tim Brick (TART co-founder, Brick Wheels owner): As I recall, Grand Traverse Resort at one point was a Hilton property, and Hilton was very interested in connecting to Traverse City. They assigned Rick Antosh to that project. Rick invited John Robert Williams, June Thaden, and me, and we began meeting under the name ‘Citizens for Better Ways.’ The State of Michigan was planning to widen US-31 N along East Bay. The law in place at that time said that whenever a road is improved there needs to be accommodations for pedestrian and non-motorized transportation.
June Thaden (TART co-founder, former president of Cherry Capital Cycling Club): I talked with a guy from Cleveland who’d ridden out of his city through quite a few cities. The worst road he’d ever ridden was US-31, coming into town.
Brick: Our group held the state’s feet to the fire and insisted they add sidewalks or bike trails to the widening. Then they pulled an ace out of their sleeve and noted there was a clause that said a bike path doesn’t have to be built if it won’t connect to an existing trail. We went to work on Rotary to see if they would fund the trail from Railroad Avenue to Three Mile Road, thus eliminating the state’s loophole. There [would be] a trail to connect to.
Williams: The rail corridor was chosen as the logical path of least resistance [for the trail to run alongside].
Brick: UpTran, the railroad division of the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), insisted we have a fence put up between the trail and the tracks, because the rail spur was still active. The fence had a $50,000 price tag. I’m sure the state was throwing hurdles our way because they really didn’t want to have to build the trail, but we persisted and prevailed.
Thaden: As the TART trail started, I remember a number of times sitting in Brick’s office, just wondering where we were going to get more money, support, interest. That part was the hard part: Trying to get people to work toward something together. Rotary Charities came in with the extra money that we absolutely had to have. We couldn’t meet the local match with the little we’d raised.
Brick: Eventually the city connected the parkway trail to the Railroad Avenue, trail. At that time, that was the only recreational trail operating in an active railroad right-of-way.
Peter Doren (TART co-founder, former city attorney, and the writer of the TART Rotary grant): The name ‘TART,’ Traverse Area Recreational and Transportation, was dreamt up by Rick Antosh in the shower. June and I both thought it was brilliant – although I must confess when I first heard it, my mind leapt to the image of an immoral woman rather than a variety of cherry.
Brick: We changed our name to TART [from Citizens for Better Ways]. I then asked George Watson to design the logo, which he did for free. George was a nationally known graphic artist who designed the Brick Wheels logo as well. [The TART logo] was bigger than most people realize. It has weathered the test of time and has become one of the most recognized logos in all northwest Michigan. I wish George had lived a little longer to see how significant his contribution has become.
Williams: Soon, Ted Okerstom, VASA ski race originator; and Gerry Harsch, then Garfield Township planner, had the idea to put a trail around Boardman Lake. They were competing with TART for the same attention and dollars. Trail fever was contagious, and active Leelanau County residents like the Bahle family – and many others – wanted to construct a trail connecting Suttons Bay with Traverse City. The VASA had an annual race every year and George Lombard had assistance to build a permanent series of loops for skiing and summer use with off-road cycling. Four hungry groups, all with turf wars, and four different boards trying to build out their trail systems.
Brick: At one point I was on the Vasa Board, the TART board, and the Leelanau Trail board. All those factions were going to the same well [for donations and grants] and spending a lot of time, energy, and money attending township meetings, city commission meetings, and public hearings. It was a very contentious time.
Ross Childs (former Grand Traverse County administrator): In the end, it made sense for all of these people – many of whom also had full-time jobs – to combine trail interests under one umbrella and under one director, for the good of their work and the good of the community.
Williams: There was reluctance to join together. Yet, in the back of most minds, one advocacy and voice doing the asking [for funding] did make the most sense. Over the course of 18 months or so, cooler heads prevailed and the Leelanau Trail, the Boardman Lake Trail, VASA, and TART all merged. I was the president of TART and became the first president of the combined boards. Tensions were high for a while, but soon, it was understood that the merger was best for all concerned. I hope, in the decades since, that everyone agrees now that it was the right decision to merge us all together for strength and focus.
Antosh: Having since moved to New York, I came back a few years ago to visit. Doren and I were biking out on the TART Trail, and I was so happy to see people using it and the community impact it had. I knew then that it was all worth it.
Brick: When people around the country speak of cycle-friendly communities, Traverse City’s name is often in the mix. When you hear of towns like Portland, Oregon; Minneapolis, Minnesota; or Davis, California, you always hear about what awesome programs and trails those cities offer. Their programs are run by the government with tax revenue. What people fail to realize is Traverse City has just as many cool programs and awesome trails and our entire organization is supported by grassroots people. When I tell people that, they can’t believe it. We have other cities and towns send officials here to find out how TART does it. Other towns in the area lean on TART for advice and guidance. TART never says no.
Williams: In the 1980s, I dreamed of a bicycle utopia here – with trails connecting communities, schools, and other trails, and becoming a system much like the streets, roads, and highways are connected for motor use. I dreamed of connecting Traverse City with the adjoining towns: Acme, Interlochen, Cadillac, Charlevoix, and Northport. I drew routes all over the north on maps. I drew out trail systems all over town. Most of my dreams have yet to become a reality. It's been hard. But the advocacy of TART, with a full-time staff and the outreach they have, is beyond anything I could have dreamed.Comment